Italy developed the trunk of a wearable robotic exoskeleton.
Globally, work accidents cost European businesses about 4% of their GNP. Across Europe it is estimated that more than 25% of workers have experienced low back problems related to manual management of heavy workloads.
Robotic solutions are frequently used in manufacturing processes to support manual handling operations. However, they are programmed to do specific tasks only and not suitable for specific operations requiring the cognition, senses and experience of a human worker.
Based on this existing trade-off between flexibility on the production and safety of the industrial operators, has been developed the Robo-Mate project with a European Union Funds (under the FP7 program) in which 12 partners from seven European countries collaborated.
The main purpose was the development of an exoskeleton to help industrial workers managing heavy workload (manufactures, logistics, production lines…). Reducing the risk of muscle problems, this system promotes flexibility and, ultimately, increases the yield and the quality of production processes while protecting workers’ health.
When technology helps Human
Robo-Mate is a modular, lightweight and wearable robotic exoskeleton with intelligent and user-friendly interface that consists of three modules (to make it adjustable to different industries and to different tasks) plus a trunk and control interface (HMI).
Each module can be used independently, or together with other modules, depending on the activity of the operator. The trunk was developed in the Department of Advanced Robotics of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) based in Genoa with the objective of reducing the muscle force of the worker’s back by applying an assistive torque at the hip.
To design and develop this project, a study of the industry requirements, a mechatronic structure design and ergonomic analysis have been carried out by the leading team within the 12 partners of the project, together with : a mechanical designer, two researchers for the development of the implementation unit (with sensors to measure the loading and electronic system) and a graduate student for biomechanical system and control development.
Designed for mechanical engineering requirements, Robo-Mate involves a wide range of applications where a physically demanding work has to be carried out by the workers in the factory.
Tools and sensors can be easily customized to suit applications, making Robo-Mate suitable for the automotive industry but also in the areas of construction, logistics and disassembly. In this case Robo-mate will not only facilitate the frequent handling operation, but will also make the interaction with the automated line easier and much more flexible.
“The biggest challenge” highlighted Jesús Ortiz, member of the Development Team of Robo-Mate in IIT “was to develop a system that was comfortable to wear and that transmits effectively assistive torque operator. We made several prototypes to test and study the interaction between humans and the system, which should allow freedom of movement to the operator.
For this reason the system must be sufficiently fast and incorporate a number of passive joints that allow certain movements. The system needed to be light and transmit the weight evenly on the operator’s body, to reduce the number of pressure points. Besides all this, the application must be carried out in complete safety, the system must not endanger the operator.”
Regarding the operations of control and monitoring, IIT has chosen for his prototypes the Intense PC2 by Tiny Green PC. This computer has already been used by other departments of the Italian Institute of Technology, such as the team that developed the robot quadruped HyQ. Under the new Robo-Mate project, Intense PC2 was chosen in particular for its compactness and power.
With a dual core Intel Haswell processor (i7-4600U, 64 bit, 2.1GHz @15W), Intense PC2 i7 provides performance in a very compact form factor (19cm x 16cm x 4cm), weighing around 1 kilogram only. Another big factor was its sturdiness and passive cooling. Coming with no moving parts (fanless technology) makes this PC extremely rugged and silent. Four key features that made it an optimal choice for the robotic Robo-Mate project.
On the choice of the PC, the IIT team that designed the system pointed out: “In the first prototypes, when the exoskeleton software was still not optimized, we wanted a powerful and robust solution that would allow the system to run smoothly. The software, developed on traditional x86 computer, worked “out of the box” on the Intense PC2, so the transition from the external computer to the on-board computer was completely transparent, without any transitional problems or code conversion.”
Which Future for Robo-Mate?
The Robo-Mate project is in the final stages. The Italian Institute of Technology is currently testing the system in industrial environments, and the preliminary results show a significant advantage on operators’ work.
Given the impact of this project and the interest of the various industrial sectors, IIT is preparing the launch of several projects to keep up with developments. This project has opened the way for several other proposals for EU robotic projects that will be presented in a near future by some partners who have worked on Robo-Mate.
The project includes 12 partners from the industrial to academic field, coming from 7 different European countries. The consortium includes leading experts in the field, creating a unique formula that allows to take on the challenges involved in the design and development of exoskeletons for industrial applications:
accelopment AG, CH
Centro Ricerche Fiat S.c.p.A., IT
Compa S.A., RO
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Angewandten Forschung e.V., DE
Güdel AG, CH
Indra SAS, FR
Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, IT
MRK-Systeme GmbH, DE
Ropardo SRL, RO
The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, NL
University of Limerick, IE
Zurich University of Applied Science, CH (Coordinator)